Alun Lewis was a well known Anglo-Welsh poet, regarded by many as Britain’s finest Second World War poet. The Alun Lewis Papers are a collection of manuscripts and papers presented to the National Library by his widow. Manuscript 1 is a collection of papers relating to his first edition of poems Raiders' Dawn and other poems, published in 1942.
Alun Lewis, 1915-44, poet
Alun Lewis was one of the most promising and best known English language poets of the Second World War. He was born on July 1st 1915 in Cwmaman near Aberdare, the eldest of the four children of Thomas John Lewis, a schoolteacher, and his wife Gwladys Elizabeth Evans, a minister's daughter. Growing up as the son of a middle-class family in a depressed mining community, Alun developed a strong socialist conscience.
He won scholarships to Cowbridge Grammar School, and Aberystwyth and Manchester universities, where he dabbled in left-wing politics, worked on the university magazine and published his first poems and stories in The Observer and Time and Tide in 1937 – these launched his literary career. Whilst working as a teacher he met Gweno Ellis, whom he married on 5th July 1941. He became increasingly concerned as the threat of war escalated, publicly announced his pacifism in a newspaper article, and wrote to a friend 'The army, the bloody, silly, ridiculous, red-faced army … God save me from joining up.' He however later wrote 'I shall probably join up … I've been unable to settle the moral issue satisfactorily … I have a deep sort of fatalist feeling that I'll go … But … I'm not going to kill. Be killed perhaps, instead.' (Selected Poetry, 18). He was suffering from serious depression at this time.
He impulsively joined the Royal Engineers in 1940, but hated military life. He qualified as a Second Lieutenant in the South Wales Borderers in October 1941, and again fell into depression which lasted until the end of the summer of 1942. In October he set sail for India, leaving his wife with some piercing poems of separation. They never saw each other again. In India he was troubled by the peasants poverty, and suffered another bout of depression in November 1943, but by December he wrote 'I'm beginning to be free … of the one destroying burden, despair'
In February 1944 his unit were moved to Burma, and hours before the start of his first patrol on 5 March 1944 he was found shot in the head and died from his wounds. Despite suggestions of suicide, the enquiry concluded that he had tripped and accidentally shot himself. His early death was a huge loss to Welsh literature and to the wider literary world.
Papers of Alun Lewis
This manuscript is part of a collection of manuscripts and papers presented to the National Library by Alun Lewis' widow in June 1988. Books and other items were also received at the same time, as well as an engraving of him by John Petts that was used as a cover illustration to his first edition of poems, Raiders' Dawn and other poems in 1942. This was the only collection of poetry published in his lifetime, which established him as one of 'the finest poets of his generation'. The volume was well received by the public and critics alike, and was re-printed six times. He wrote mainly about himself within the narrow limits of the war, and became one of the very few great poets to record their experience of the Second World War in verse. Most of the poems are about the loneliness of military life, composed while he was a soldier in the training camps and whilst living among the civilians in the bombed cities, and speak with realistic awareness, of death, and of love in the shadow of death with the 'sensitive integrity of an English soldier'. They 'reveal a compassionate concern for the victims of oppression and tyranny: Welsh miners, private soldiers, women, and children.'
MS1 is one of 6 formed from loose leaves and filed in NLW. It contains manuscript and typescript drafts, fair copies, transcripts, and in some instances earlier versions of poems published in Raiders' Dawn and other poems. The poems are listed in the order in which they appear in the published volume.
Bibliography and further reading
- Alun Lewis, Raiders' dawn, London, 1942;
- Wales at war, Alun Lewis and other writers, study guide, University of Glamorgan, 1993;
- Poetry Wales, vol. 10, no. 3 (Alun Lewis Special Number);
- John Pikoulis, Alun Lewis, A Life, Seren, 1995;
- Gweno Lewis (ed), Alun Lewis, Letters to my wife, Seren, 1989;
- J. Pikoulis(ed.), Alun Lewis: a miscellany of his writings, Poetry Wales Press, 1982;
- Alun Lewis, Wikipedia [accessed 3 March 2013];
- Alun Lewis, Encyclopædia Brittanica Online [accessed 3 March 2013];
- Lewis, Alun (1915–1944), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography online [accessed 3 March 2013];
- Soldier Poets, Channel 4 Archive [accessed 3 March 2013];
- Lewis, Alun (1915-1944), Welsh Biography Online [accessed 3 March 2013].